The following article was published in The Bradenton Herald on November 18th.
By MEREDITH HECTOR - Special to the Herald
This community, which has suffered the recession's sucker punch, received some great news earlier this fall: According to the 2009 Soul of the Community study, Bradenton residents are the most emotionally attached to their community of all 26 surveyed.
There's more: The results are particularly important because the Gallup study, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, indicates a relationship between residents' emotional connection to where they live and local economic growth.
The results are exciting and create opportunities. But what do we do with this information?
Fortunately, Soul of the Community points to specific areas residents can impact in order to improve people's passion and loyalty for Bradenton - and, hopefully, our area's economic vitality.
Soul of the Community is a study of perceptions. Unlike the latest unemployment figures, we can change what people think and how they feel. That is why we can be experiencing one of the worst economic declines in recent memory, and still have a large percentage of residents who love where they live.
The economy is bad everywhere. Folks don't appear to be blaming their financial troubles on where they live. Instead, there are other community features that drive people's perception that the Bradenton area is a place they enjoy and recommend to others.
Luckily for us, these features also happen to be ones we can influence.
Two key features are perceived as community strengths in Bradenton: our social offerings (fun places to gather and meet people) and our aesthetics (the region's physical beauty and green spaces).
But a third feature, openness - or how welcoming a place is perceived to be for different demographic groups - merits extra attention and work.
A whopping 60 percent of all residents surveyed, regardless of their own demographic group, give this area high marks for perceived welcomeness to seniors. But perceived welcomeness to other groups is dramatically lower: families with young children, 23 percent; immigrants, 21 percent; racial and ethnic minorities, 18 percent.
And young talented college graduates, who could be the key to Bradenton's economic future? Only 7 percent of residents thought Bradenton was welcoming to them.
Dr. Katherine Loflin, Gallup's lead consultant on the project, points out that these openness questions were asked of everyone surveyed. That's important because it shows the pervasiveness and agreement of perceptions of welcomeness (or not) to certain groups.
On Oct. 8, Dr. Loflin kicked off the first in a series of conversations about the Soul of the Community results at the Institute for Public Policy and Leadership at the University of South Florida. She challenged us to take action on these issues.
Clearly we want to maintain resident views of the Bradenton area as a welcoming community to seniors. At the same time, we want to significantly increase our sense (and our reality) that this is a place equally welcoming of other demographics groups.
In January, we're continuing the conversation - and make plans for action - with a second workshop. This time, we'll focus specifically on ways to attract and keep young, talented college graduates.
Our region has a wealth of higher education institutions, collectively enrolling about 16,000 students. These students have the potential to be this region's future workforce - the next generation building the local economy and civic life. But there is also the real possibility that many will choose to take their time and talents elsewhere.
To help ensure Bradenton's survey results and No. 1 ranking aren't a hollow victory, we hope you'll take part in conversations and activities that bring about ways to help increase residents' love for Bradenton. Contact me at hector@knight foundation.org if you'd like to attend the January workshop. And find out more about the study's results, and add your own thoughts on the Soul of the Community blog, at www.soulof thecommunity.org.
Meredith Hector, Bradenton program director for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, blogs about Bradenton news and the foundation's work in the region at www.knight foundation.org/bradenton.